“An instance of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought.”
I’ve traveled to East Lansing, Michigan, this week to, specifically, be here today, May 16. At 4:16 on 5/16 last year, my dad sank slowly into the most beautiful of deaths over eight days, “taking his own good time to die” (https://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/taking-his-own-good-time-to-die/).
He’d had to endure nine months of suffering. He did that well, too, but he shouldn’t have had to find the strength to bear it. I could have used the legal power he entrusted in me, and the strength and resolve he knows I possess in sometimes too much quantity, to follow his expressed wishes in his living will and let him die so much earlier. For too many complex reasons, I hesitated — first and foremost among them, the desire to follow my anarchistic ethics of building consent around a, literally, life-and-death decision. Consensus, in a world that hides death, damages humans, and commodifies “health,” is next to impossible. So my dad inhabited suspended life without the ability to speak, in an imprisoned body hooked up to machines in a bed. That’s nearly all I can recall of him.
So this afternoon, I’m off to visit the hospice where he came to life again, briefly, and died with fullness, joy, dignity. His dying well was well deserved, especially those first twenty-four hours of his eight days in hospice, when he was showered with people telling him what he’d meant to them — in person, via cards, over the phone. Funerals are for the living; celebrations of life are for the dying.
And memorials are for the caring, or so it felt to me this morning. Coincidentally, the assisted living home where my mom lived and died just over seven months ago, was having a collective memorial for all those who’d died there the past six months. I went because my mom’s best friend, now a dear friend of mine, said she thought it would be a good chance to see lots of the friends I made last year, when that place became a caring community not only for my mom but me too. One of the most caring, in fact. Lo and behold, when I sat down with residents, staff, and visitors, so many of whom I’d come to know and respect last year, I glanced at the program, and there was my mom’s name, right at the top. The first name. They’d included her, not knowing I’d be there, and I got to include her, not knowing she’d be there with me in spirit.
I wasn’t planning on sharing, feeling, or being so moved — so cared for and appreciated again, and so held in the warm embrace of collective sharing of all the tenderness that life has to offer — at this memorial. But suddenly I felt tears on my cheek, and looked around at so many good faces — people who know how to be there for others, because they’ve learned how to be there for themselves as well. We sit, literally and figuratively, with the fleetingness and power of life, and the care and love, smiles and silly stories, surrounding all the too-many we were conjuring up with our words. In a place like this, many die. Perhaps people become good at dealing with death, though I saw again how one really never becomes armored to death’s sadness, its takings. I do know for certain that people, at least here in a place that cares, beyond profit motive and job duties, become really good at dealing with each other through the triumphs and losses that this world throws at us.
I wasn’t planning on marking both my parents’ death today, but I am. When they both became sick a day apart, and when I tended them both simultaneously for months, and when they died in such close proximity, and now, when their bodies lie in the same classroom as “willed bodies” for anatomy students for the next three years, my mind could never quite find space to place them side by side. I could never quite do the emotional work of double mourning, at the same instant. I sort of “set aside” my dad, in fact, since my mom was still alive, and we’d grown extra close, and her death hit me far more, because she wasn’t suffering beforehand. I keep thinking she died first. That it’s been a year since my dad passed seems improbable, as if he’s still somehow, captured by life support, or what he kept calling “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Serendipity has brought them together, wedded in my emotional work.
After the memorial this morning — after another hour schmoozing with other daughters and sons who’d just lost their moms (moms I knew); a hospice woman who let me join her grief group last year at the assisted living home before, during, and after my mom’s death; staff who’d gone so far beyond their job descriptions to even break rules for me and my mom in the name of human decency — I wandered into the garden outside. I’d come there many times when my mom lived here, especially during her two weeks of dying well. I’d used the flowers as companions. Today, though, I saw a flower that wasn’t around during my mom’s autumnal ending. It was hidden away under a blazing-purple lilac bush, almost not visible, amid hundreds of other showy spring flowers in full bloom. Lily of the valley. Always my mom’s favorite, as flower and scent. As if she, too, was remembering me.
Death becomes comfort, circle, part of life, when we let people die on their own time, honoring their transition and inherent worth, and when we share death and our lives openly, with others, past and present.
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(Photo by Cindy Milstein: Burcham Hills garden, East Lansing, May 16, 2014.)